Bill Phelps
Classic sights like the iconic Trevi Fountain are Rome mainstays amidst a booming reinvention
Classic sights like the iconic Trevi Fountain are Rome mainstays amidst a booming reinvention
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Rome Renewed

A wave of creative development is remaking the Eternal City, yet again

By Ondine Cohane

February 26th, 2010

It is dusk in Rome. At the bottom of the steps leading up to Piazza del Campidoglio, the modern side of the capital is on full display: Angry taxi drivers maneuver themselves around pedestrians jaywalking amid a barrage of horns. But just above, the evocative Renaissance piazza designed by Michelangelo feels unexpectedly peaceful, a throwback to that era’s ideals of perfect symmetry and order. At the edge of the square, a medieval alleyway winds down to the classical ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum beyond. If a visit is perfectly timed, the twilight’s golden light makes these famous sites look straight out of an epic Hollywood movie. And in 15 minutes, one can walk backward in time 2,000 years.

This passage from contemporary chaotic metropolis to ancient imperial Rome epitomizes the amazingly layered history here – a dazzling variety of architectural styles and philosophies that make the city so intriguingly diverse. And while Rome is renowned as a showcase for ancient as well as imperial Roman, medieval, and Renaissance art, one of its main draws is that it continues to change over time, albeit at very specific moments of history. Like now. Over the past few years, the emergence of new architecture, an evolving contemporary art scene, up-and-coming neighborhoods, and a spate of fashionable hotels and restaurants have made Rome a surprisingly vibrant destination rather than simply a living museum.

In many ways Rome’s latest incarnation is thanks to its last mayor, Walter Veltroni, who made good on his promise to guide the city into the 21st century by introducing new world-class architecture while simultaneously safeguarding the historic center. Veltroni’s enthusiasm led to the commissioning of buildings like the dynamic Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium Parco della Musica, a large performing arts complex that’s become a popular destination, and Richard Meier’s much more controversial Ara Pacis Museum by the Tiber. These buildings might not seem that unusual in this age of star architects, but the fact that they were actually completed is notable considering the notorious avalanche of Italian bureaucracy that makes even renovating a private home a tremendous undertaking. To put Meier’s project in context, it resulted in the first new building constructed in Rome’s historic center since World War II. Veltroni resigned in 2009 to attempt an ill-fated run against Berlusconi for prime minister, but Rome’s push toward modernity continues. In 2010, the much anticipated (and much delayed) Zaha Hadid-designed Maxxi Museum, Italy’s most important contemporary museum, has put Rome firmly on the international map for a new generation of museumgoers and artists.

But it’s not just impressive architecture that’s giving the capital new life: Art galleries are popping up all over town, once sleepy neighborhoods are supplying fresh energy, and town house hotels are remaking the hospitality landscape. These arrivals are adding considerably to the city’s already powerful appeal, granting even those who know Rome well with a new perspective on the metropolis. Now one can craft an itinerary that mixes the classics with the cutting edge.

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